The Oculus Rift is an example of where virtual reality is headed just as much as where it is coming from. Their website describes it as designed specifically for gaming, to make a more encompassing experience. In doing so, this hardware is crossing a very real line between digital entertainment and physical reality, effectively blurring the line between the two. Although this will no doubt catch on in a few years and even expand to film (the next level of 3D?), it nevertheless raises questions about how far virtual reality will go. This is a question I know is addressed in some science-fiction novels, often very optimistically presented as beneficial augments to our normal life, even as a second, more meaningful and politically subversive life.
Surely our technology will not make us so free that we can simply leave our bodies behind, as though they are merely outdated vestiges of a world soon forgotten. This strikes me as impossible, because we need our bodies to live through sustenance and if we all did, true to the ideology of equality, indulge in such an activity, the world, our great machine, would stop. Life as we know it would grind to a halt, and while the Internet is vast it seems impossible to truly replicate the human experience. Regardless, we seem to be leaning in a direction where the ultimate freedom is release from humanity, if only in a temporary and empirical sense. The knoll rings louder too when one thinks about the increasing number of robots being used in workforces, even in tasks as simple as automated telephone receivers.
Robots as a working force might not sound like such a bad thing at first. Optimistically thinking, it may free up enough people to make serious headway on issues like poverty across the globe. Alternatively, it may leave the same people with a justified attitude towards a life of opulence, complete with automatic grape dispensers and leaf-shaped fans. Worse still, we might wind up (in a century or two) in a situation akin to life in the Terminator films and be coerced into bending the knee before our new robot overlords. But predictions aren’t limited to the cinematic experiences alone; from stories like Isaac Asimov’s classic I, Robot, or Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, we have been presented with a human freedom that involves the slavery of mechanical counterparts that were designed to be very anthropomorphic. This is all the more poignant when one examines robots that currently exist. Even the basic stair-climbing robot vaguely resembles an astronaut. Many more recent models have been fitted with human features, though they are of varying degrees of realism.
While such books largely focus on the moral complications like whether or not robots have rights, or even a soul, we can safely say that many texts from the science fiction genre have coupled with technology, in ways that make these texts counterparts to our fantasies of techno-liberation. They can perhaps keep us better grounded in potential reality by way of providing us with a thought-provoking pastime. Further, they can be optimistic or pessimistic, horrifying or reassuring. The difference between a medical miracle and a deadly biological attack is a fairly thin line. Something it may not hurt to be reminded of every so often.
Such impulses and ideas must be balanced in their presentation though; one too many horrors and many people may find themselves entering a state of paranoid depression where all they want to do is hide. Conversely, we may find people so enthralled in the fantastic possibilities of the future that they leap from tall buildings in mechanical ‘super-hero-suits.’ Such role-playing activities – an example of liberty in the first place – are, I think, best left to conventions and living rooms, where creativity flows both safely and freely. To even consider such thoughts is a by-product of freedom, enabled by technology and accumulated over centuries.
All of these factors are leading to new questions that someday soon will need to be addressed. Think of freedom on a whole other scale: from work, from responsibility, even from physics. All very grand ideas, and potentially available at very little cost, by the next decade or so. But can it really be worth it?
The author is Senior Articles Editor for the magazine.